Curiously, in the last dozen years, hatha yoga has somehow come to refer to a style of practicing asana instead of a wide range of practices, including pranayama, cleansing practices, bandhas, mudras, all asanas, and much more. It reminds me of the telephone game where a whispered message goes from ear to ear around the room, to the amusement of all when the last message (often quite garbled!) is compared to the original.  Perhaps it’s time to hear from the original sources of hatha yoga and set the record straight.

Hatha vidya is the science of hatha yoga.

One such source is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the best known of Sanskrit texts that describe the practices of hatha yoga. Its author, Svatmarama, begins by offering salutations to Sri Adhinatha, who “instructed the science of hatha yoga, which is a stairway” for those wishing to attain the “most excellent raja yoga.” Adhinatha literally means “primal master, lord, or guru,” and refers to Lord Shiva. Shiva and his consort, Parvati, figure prominently as the original teacher and student in many of the tantras. By addressing Shiva as Adhinatha, Svatmarama is indicating not only the tantric origin of the teachings but also a particular lineage that developed and preserved the teachings: the Natha yogis. He goes on to acknowledge this guru-parampara, or lineage, and starts the list of adepts with Matsyendra (“lord of the fishes”) and Goraksha (literally, “protector of cows,” but interestingly, the name also means “protector of our senses”), saying that by their favor he has learned the hatha vidya, the science of hatha yoga.

The Natha Tradition

The Natha tradition was widespread in medieval times—from the Himalayan foothills to Nepal, Tibet, Sikkim, Bhutan, and parts of China. To the west it spread into Ladakh and Kashmir, where Matsyendranatha is considered to be an incarnation of Shiva and the author of tantric texts. The Natha tradition is the best representation of Patanjali’s teachings on tantric alchemy, which he outlines in the third pada, or chapter, of the Yoga Sutra.

Some say Matsyendranatha is the first master in the tradition of hatha yoga, after Shiva himself. Some say Matsyendra was a huge fish who overheard Shiva instructing Parvati in the secrets of yoga, on an island they assumed afforded privacy. When Shiva realized that the fish had completely absorbed the entire knowledge of yoga, he blessed the fish and sprinkled sanctified water on it. Instantly, a celestial yogi emerged. Some say this fish is the same huge fish that pulled Manu’s ark to safety during the great flood, in the yoga tradition’s equivalent of the story about Noah’s ark. Another version of the story describes Matsyendra as a sage who turned himself into a fish in order to get close enough to overhear Shiva and Parvati on the island.

The hatha yoga tradition’s interpretation of these stories draws on the concept of energy flowing in the subtle body in nadis (“rivers” or “channels”). Matsya is the fish that travels in the 72,000 rivers, or nadis, of our body. Of these nadis, three are most important: ida, pingala, and, above all, sushumna. The Lord of the Fishes has perfect control over the sushumna nadi. Thus Matsyendra, the Lord of the Fishes and the founder of the school of hatha yoga, is also the master of pranic force.

The message of yoga that Shiva whispered to Parvati so long ago is obviously much more than a style of asana, and the wisdom and practices of hatha yoga, some of which Svatmarama shares with us in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, serve as a foundation for all other forms of physical, mental, and spiritual disciplines in the yoga tradition.

More in this Series

From Asana to Samadhi: Exploring the Hatha Yoga Pradipika